Five Questions with David Boudreaux

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APADavid Boudreaux is a doctoral student in the Counseling Psychology program at the University of Southern Mississippi, working with Dr. Eric Dahlen.  For his dissertation, he is further validating a measure he created in earlier research which is intended to assess attitudes toward anger management.  He is also developing a questionnaire designed to assess an individual’s level of intended engagement in controlling his or her anger (i.e., Reading self help books, viewing a video documentary on anger, investigating anger on the internet, seeking out professional therapy, etc.).  He is pursuing a career as a psychologist at a Veterans Affairs Hospital.

1.  What motivated you to want to study anger in the first place?

I could have easily joined our nation’s armed forces as a career path, but life took a different direction.  Being that I still maintain a deep respect for the men and women serving our country, I decided to embark on a career that would help me serve the military population.  I decided to go to work as a clinician treating our nation’s veterans.  Therefore, I would have to build a vita that would support being hired by the Veteran’s Health Administration.  With anger playing a prominent role in the presentation of many veterans suffering from PTSD, I thought becoming an expert on anger would place me in an excellent position for my career goal.

2.  How do you think that studying anger now will help you with your future career plans?

We are always looking for better objective tests to help guide our treatment with various populations of interest.  By helping to do this with the college population while obtaining my education, I’m hoping to prepare myself for such endeavors with the Veteran population.  Instrument development can be an arduous process, and the unique factors of assessing anger have implications that may make the process somewhat more complicated.  For instance, the typical individual presents to therapy for distress that he or she is experiencing.  Due to the nature of problem anger, the individual experiencing that problem may or may not experience any distress or awareness that a problem exists.  Instead, he or she may perceive others as having the problem.

3.  What would you say is the most important research you have done on anger?

I have worked to help develop and validate a measure of an individual’s attitude toward anger management.  Research supports the idea that our attitude toward a behavior helps predict our motivation to engage in said behavior.  The literature also tells us that, despite the need for anger management, very few individuals with that need present to anger management.  If we can assess an individual’s attitude towards receiving professional aid with treating their anger, we may have a better chance of understanding how to motivate that individual to engage or remove barriers to treatment.

4.  What do you think are some of the most common misconceptions about anger?
I think the largest misconception about anger that I have experienced is the thought that a well-directed cathartic release of anger is somehow therapeutic.  In other words, conventional wisdom may tell an individual that, when angry, punching a pillow is a good way to “release” that tension.  No research on anger I have seen or conducted supports this type of behavior as a way to reduce the experience of problem anger.

5.  If there was one thing you would like people to understand about anger, what would it be?

Anger is a natural emotion, and it can be a functional emotion.  Just like physical pain tells us something is wrong with our body and should be addressed, anger tells us something is wrong with our cognitive and emotional experience of the world.  To alleviate pain, we do not encourage the practice of more pain.  Instead, we look for the source of that pain and do our best to remove it.  The same could be said of anger.  Practicing anger does not address the source of that anger.  Anger is just an initial signal for a problem that should be identified and addressed, usually through relaxation techniques and proactive communication strategies.

Five Questions with Dr. Eric Dahlen

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Dr. Eric Dahlen is an associate professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Southern Mississippi. He also directs their in-house training clinic, where he has set up an anger management program to serve community adults and college students, staff, and faculty.  He has a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from Colorado Sstate University and has been studying anger for about 13 years.  You can learn more about Dr. Dahlen at his website: 

1.  What motivated you to start studying anger in the first place?

When I started graduate school, I thought I wanted to study suicide. After completing my master’s thesis on the role of gender and context on attitudes toward suicidal behavior, I was ready for a change. I heard wonderful things about Dr. Jerry Deffenbacher from my peers, and so I approached him about working with him on anger. It turned out to be a great fit, both in terms of the subject and with him as a major professor. I credit him with sparking my interest in anger and cannot imagine a better mentor

2.  What would you say is the most important research you have done on anger?

I have certainly enjoyed my work on mapping the correlates of general anger and driving anger. However, when I think about importance in terms of overall impact, I have a feeling that some of my most recent work on enhancing treatment motivation among anger management clients may prove to be among the most important. This is still in the early phases. We have developed and tested one brief motivational enhancement intervention aimed at college students. Initial results were promising, but more extensive tests are needed. We have also been working on a similar approach for community adults. My hope is that we will eventually be able to provide clinicians with a 1-2 session approach, suitable for individual or group delivery, that will help engage clients and reduce attrition.

3.  What do you think are the most important questions that anger researchers have yet to answer?

There are many important ones that remain unanswered, and I suppose that it part of the appeal in working on anger. One that I have been thinking about lately concerns prevention. We have learned a great deal about the treatment of clinically dysfunctional anger over the past 20 years, but information about prevention and early intervention strategies is scarce. So many of the clients we see in anger management do not enter treatment until they have experienced many negative consequences of their anger, some of which are irreversible. I am intrigued by the possibility of helping people enter treatment earlier, as well as trying to prevent problem anger from developing in the first place.

4.  What do you think are some of the most common misconceptions about anger?

There are many misconceptions about anger, not only among the general public but also among those in the helping professions who really should know better. The two I encounter most often concern gender differences and the catharsis myth.

Many people seem to be convinced that anger is primarily a male problem and that women do not experience dysfunctional anger. In part, this misconception is likely based on a failure to clearly distinguish between anger and aggression, but I see it result in anger problems being minimized in women. Research shows that women and men do not differ in the propensity to experience angry feelings and that any differences in how they express anger tend to be quite small. I think it is important to recognize that problem anger can lead to the same problems for women as it does for men and that women are every bit as deserving of effective treatments.

The catharsis myth refers to the belief, unfortunately popular among some in the helping professions, that anger must be vented. Poorly informed therapists ask their clients to punch pillows, hit objects with foam-covered bats, and the like. Not only is this approach based on outdated theories of the human mind, but there is considerable evidence that such methods may make the anger worse and increase the likelihood of aggressive behavior. Based on the potential for harm here, I think this is a particularly important misconception about which we should work to educate the public.

5.  If there was one thing you would like people to understand about anger, what would it be?

I think it is important for people to understand that anger is a normal emotion that is not something we should seek to abolish. At mild to moderate levels, anger can be quite advantageous. It alerts us to problems in our environment and facilitates important forms of social communication. It is important to think about anger management as a process of empowering people to gain greater control over their anger and not as a way to eliminate angry feelings.